'I hid in toilet cubicles just to hide from school bully' - founder of inspiring new Shona project to help teenage girls
“She made up a song about me that I can still remember the words for. She used to sing it about me out loud after class, and she used to write things about me in the toilets.”
Tammy Darcy (38) from Passage East, Co Waterford was a straight-A student until she reached her teenage years. At 14, everything changed.
She was bullied by a girl who had been her friend; her parents split up; and her 15-year-old sister was diagnosed with a life-changing acquired brain injury that left her severely disabled.
“She (the bully) used to threaten to hurt me. Only once did she go for me physically and that wasn’t very nice, but mostly it was threats. That's what bullying is, it’s all psychological warfare,” Tammy recalls.
“I was in the toilet cubicles reading books just to hide from her and I was climbing over the back wall of school to walk home so she wouldn’t see me.
“Originally we were friends, and she was in a very bad place herself. I can see looking back that she had no role models.”
“We started getting in trouble together, and mitching off school. Then I realised I didn’t want to do that, and I shut myself off, and I can see now that it was another rejection for her so she reacted to that.”
Tammy recalls that her parents’ marriage broke down around this time and her older sister Shona also became gravely ill.
“The year that I turned 14, which is an age that keeps coming up again and again for teenagers, my parents separated, which is a common thing, but a horrible thing.”
She added: “Shona got very sick, very quickly, and had surgery to save her life and she was badly brain damaged and now she needs 24-hour care.”
“I remember she started struggling in school a little bit which was normal enough. I was sheltered a little bit from the initial concerns. But I remember that her balance was going and her ability to do her motor skills was going. We were out on a cycle and one day she just fell off the bike out of nowhere. A man came up in a car behind her and he had to put the bike in the boot and carry us home.”
“Then another time we were out for a walk and she fell, and she just said ‘I can’t get up’. My Dad had to come down and carry her home.”
“Then her right eye turned inwards, I suppose it was the pressure of a growth on her brain. Then I became aware that there was an issue.”
Though doctors saved Shona’s life with brain surgery, she was left severely disabled afterwards and she never recovered. Shona will celebrate her 40th birthday in six weeks’ time, a milstone which will be difficult for her family who still mourn for the person she once was.
“When she went for the operation, she never came back. I was 14. I didn’t lose her because she survived, but I lost her in terms of having a sister and I didn’t have the opportunity to grieve for her.”
“She was in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire for a long time. She did live at home for a couple of years and then that got too much. Then she became completely bedbound, and then she had to be put into a home.”
“The life she has at the moment you wouldn’t want for anyone. She needs 24-hour nursing care, and mentally she’s very, very troubled.”
Tammy has founded the Shona Project (www.shona.ie), a programme of supports and a survival kit for girls, provided in schools and online for young girls to overcome personal challenges.
The point, she says, is to give teenage girls the tools to help them through any difficulties and mental health issues they might have. The idea grew out of the fact that neither she nor her sister Shona got to reach their full potential as teenagers.
“It’s two girls who went through an experience and neither of them got to live up to their potential as kids. There are so many girls like that out there, and 'Shona' is for them.”
“For me, this is my experience as a girl, so I am able to put myself into the shoes of a 14-year-old girl. All of these things had a massive effect on me where I went from an A student and boisterous child to basically surviving.”
“That took my potential future away from me. I didn’t even bother applying for college.”
“I felt it was really important that there’s a website available. I want to be sure that they have the tools, that it becomes more like a community for girls. We go and do the workshops and talk about all of these issues, and tell girls to stop letting the outside influences take you off the path that you’re on.”
“There were so many girls I could see in their faces they were struggling through school and with mental health. I wanted to go to schools and talk about bullying.”
Remarkably, Tammy holds down a full-time job, and works on the Shona Project - which she hopes will eventually sustain itself - in her spare time.
“It’ll be a platform for girls to share their own views. Eventually every girl in Ireland will know the Shona project is where they can go for anything they want."